CAPSULE: Tom Hooper takes the now classic stage musical and makes of it a film even more spectacular, sweeping, and poignant. It covers nearly the entire emotional spectrum possible. LES MISÉRABLES is a moving film experience to be treasured. I consider it the best film I have seen in years. Rating: +4 (-4 to +4) or 10/10
The play LES MISÉRABLES by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg was and remains a very successful international theatrical hit, as moving today as it was twenty-five years ago. To bring it to the screen, director Tom Hooper (THE KING'S SPEECH) seems to have given considerable thought to what is lost and gained translating a stage play to cinema and specifically what can be done in cinema that cannot be done in live theater. The very the opening sequence has maybe a hundred prisoners being human winches pulling an enormous ship into dry dock with only muscle power on long ropes.
The new film version is shot with an active camera--perhaps a little too active--that allows us to see emotions on actors' faces as well as splendidly beautiful backgrounds. Political references in the play can be made more understandable in the film. Having a handful of actors on stage giving throat to spirited calls for revolution in the play cannot compete with scenes of the barricades being built twenty feet high and seeing a small group of students facing off against rows of armed soldiers.
The Victor Hugo novel is one of the great works of literature, so describing the plot here is like describing the plot of HAMLET. Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, a released prisoner. His crimes were stealing bread for his hungry family and later a few prison escape attempts. The law requires that he show his passport as a former prisoner and he is beaten and reviled wherever he goes. Valjean nearly turns to a life of crime out of desperation until a Bishop inspires him to spend his life repenting and serving others. But to do so he must break his parole, and the fanatical Police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) chases him for decades. Their different viewpoints--Javert's devotion to the letter of the law and Valjean's belief in religiously inspired positive works and mercy--define their actions and their philosophies for years. One positive act on Valjean's part, helping a former employee, ends up changing his whole life.
LES MISÉRABLES has been adapted many times to the screen--46 times are listed in the IMDB--and until now perhaps the best was Raymond Bernard's film in 1934. This new film is the only version that rival's Bernard's for detail and complexity. That is ironic since it had to carry the weight of the singing in addition to telling the story. The singing of the musical content is done with the actors' own voices sung in front of the camera, itself a remarkable practice these days. And the singing is done in long camera takes, not piecing together bits and pieces with peak moments as was done in films like MOULIN ROUGE and CHICAGO. The difference is like being given steak instead of hamburger.
Filled with actors known for drama rather than singing, LES MISÉRABLES still does very good in the musical sections that make up nearly the entire film. Jackman has a good singing voice, but Crowe's voice is discordant as is the personality of his character. He is an impressive force when not singing and a little less when he is. He manages singing better than Clint Eastwood or Lee Marvin has. Hooper may have been going for something other than operatic perfection from his character. Anne Hathaway's singing is excellent and wedded to intensive acting in one of the standout performances of the year. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are a little overripe in the comic relief roles of the two Thernardiers, but perhaps the intense story needed some relief.
With a story about among other things class conflict this production of the play by Boublil and Schönberg is perhaps timelier today than when the play was first produced. That makes this an important film as well as a very well made one. Any small failings of LES MISÉRABLES are overwhelmed by the accomplishment of what was done here that is directly on the mark. I found the film is a powerful experience. The audience I saw it with not only applauded at the end, they applauded it in the middle. I give the new LES MISÉRABLES the very rare rating of +4 on the -4 to +4 scale or a full 10/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1707386/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/les_ miserables_2012/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper